On 8th February 1587, at the age of 44, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, under the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I,
The only child of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary was born in December 1542 in Linlithgow Palace. Mary was only 6 days old when her father died and she became queen.
As Mary was too young to rule, her mother acted as regent in her stead, and arranged for Mary’s betrothal to King Henry VIII’s son, Edward, when she was 5 years old. However, when the time grew nearer, Mary, herself already a strong Catholic, had Catholic guardians who were opposed to a match with a Protestant. To prevent it happening, they took Mary away to Stirling Castle. This breaking of the proposed marriage agreement made Henry VIII very angry, and he ordered a series of savage but unsuccessful raids into Scotland. These attacks became known as The Rough Wooing.
Rather than marry Mary off to the English monarchy, her guardians arranged an alliance with Francis, the four-year-old heir to the French crown, and sent Mary to be raised at the French court. In April 1558 they were married and the following year Francis became king, briefly uniting the French and Scottish crowns. Only the year after this, however, King Francis died from an ear infection, leaving Mary a widow at the age of 18.
Returning to Scotland, Mary found herself a Catholic living in a country that was officially Protestant, and this meant many people regarded her with suspicion even though she initially ruled with patience and understanding.
In 1565, Mary married her cousin the Earl of Darnley, but the marriage quickly broke down, and Mary became fond of the Earl of Bothwell instead. Darnley became increasingly suspicious of Mary, and in 1566 he and a group of Protestant nobles murdered Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio, believing him to be having an affair with his wife. After the birth of Darnley and Mary’s son James in June 1566, their relationship became even worse, and, when in February 1567 Darnley was murdered via an explosion outside his house in Edinburgh, the main suspect was the Earl of Bothwell. Further, Mary married him only 3 months after Darnley’s death. It was an act that turned the majority of the Scottish nobility against her. Bothwell was quickly sent into exile and Mary forced to abdicate from the Scottish throne in July 1567. She was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, and her infant son James was made king.
With the help of a few loyal followers, Mary escaped Lochleven in 1568 and fled to England to seek refuge from her cousin, Elizabeth I. She had expected Elizabeth to help her, but the Queen of England found herself put in a very difficult position because Mary had a strong claim to the English throne. To keep her throne safe, Elizabeth ultimately had Mary imprisoned for the next 19 years.
Even though she was constantly watched, every time there was a plot against Elizabeth, Mary was blamed by the Queen’s supporters. Despite this, Elizabeth herself gave her cousin the benefit of the doubt until 1586, when she discovered Mary had corresponded with Anthony Babington, who was plotting to depose Elizabeth. These letters convinced Elizabeth that Mary would in fact always be a danger to her position as Queen of England.
Mary was tried for treason and condemned to death in October 1586. It was still 5 months before Elizabeth finally agreed to sign the death warrant which sent Mary to the block, but in the end it was inevitable. Not for the first time, a crown had become a poisoned chalice.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.